There are three common problems that people encounter when they are trying to learn or scale their handstand push ups.
You can’t get into a good overhead position because you lack mobility.
You get pain or discomfort in your shoulder in the bottom position or when you press to the top lockout.
You’re not strong enough.
Whilst these three things can be linked and require a more individualised approach, we’re going to keep it simple today and give you some simple solutions to try.
To get your hands fully overhead you need thoracic spine extension.
The problem is people spend a lot of time in thoracic spine flexion.
Sitting, phones, cars, computers and binge-watching box sets are crippling our ability to extend the spine.
When your spine gets stiff and ‘stuck’ you will find it difficult to get into strong, stable overhead positions.
So, if this sounds like you, start building in some thoracic spine mobility into your weekly training schedule.
Mobility can take time to improve, so if you have spent the last 10 years telling your brain that spinal flexion is what you want to do all day, it’s very generously going to have granted your wish by adapting to the stress (sitting) that you have placed upon it. Thinking that you can suddenly click undo and get your range of motion into extension back would be naïve.
Just like you worked at sitting, you’re going to have to work to get your shoulder mobility back too.
PAIN + DISCOMFORT
One of the causes of pain around the shoulder in handstand push ups is scapula kinematics. Basically, the ability of the shoulder blade to move around the ribcage in a controlled, co-ordinated and rhythmical manner is essential for high quality pain-free movement.
If your scapula doesn’t rotate upwards effectively as you work through the handstand push up, you might feel a pinching feeling on the top of your shoulder.
This might occur because you have run out of space between the acromion process (the bony structure on the top of the scapula) and the head of the humerus (the bone in your upper arm).
Think about the acromion being the roof of the shoulder and the humeral head being the floor.
In that sub-acromial space runs one of your rotator cuff tendons (suprapinatus). The long head of biceps tendon and you’ll find the subacromial bursa which works like a cushion.
If the scapula doesn’t move into enough upward rotation, the space between the roof and the floor closes and can irritate these tissues resulting in pain and discomfort.
A good starting point for a solution is to get more upward rotation of your scapula and create more space.
Try this wall slide exercise to get your shoulders moving better and then try your handstand push ups.
The handstand push up is not an easy exercise, particularly if you’re doing it strict.
The task is to press around 90% of your bodyweight overhead. Not many people doing handstands push ups in CrossFit boxes and gyms around the world have got a 90% bodyweight strict barbell press for reps.
The advantage that you have in a handstand push up compared to a barbell press however is you’re working in mid-range which, is where you are strongest.
Think about the range of motion you have when you press a barbell vs a handstand push up on the floor.
You’d rightly get some strange looks (and under-developed deltoids) if you were only lowering the barbell to the top of your head before pressing it back up.
That’s the range of motion you’re using in a floor handstand push up.
Why does this matter?
Well, if we understand the relationship between strength and range of movement, we can use it to our advantage and use deficits to build handstand push up strength.
In strength training, a deficit is where we typically elevate our body further from the floor.
In this context, we put the hands on two paralettes or stacks of weight plates so there is space for our head when we descend meaning we can move through a greater range of motion.
Now doing this in a full handstand push up is going to be too difficult if you’re starting out so opt for an easier progression and perform hand and feet elevated pike push ups.
If you’re already proficient at handstand push ups and looking to increase your strict rep capacity, use the deficit against the wall and work through lower rep ranges to build more maximal strength. When you go back to the floor, the range of motion will feel like a breeze and your performance will reflect that.
Why does this work?
By working through the deficit, you shift the optimal force production mid-point I referenced before.
Whereas before your handstand strength was limited to straight arms to the top of your head, now with the deficit you’re strong from the full overhead position all the way to your clavicle, providing you’re working on a full range deficit.
With that range in the bank, your mid-point where you have the best ability to produce force is the top of you head.
The floor handstand push up is now right in the sweet spot for force production meaning you can perform more reps.
There you go, three ways to improve your handstand push ups.
GYMNASTIC SHOULDER PAIN: HANDSTANDS
In this webinar, we take a look at handstands and the demands it places on the shoulder, covering the most common problem points and the principles to pain-free movement.